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International Geographic Congress 2012: The World is Catching Up to the U.S. in Applied Geography

Wednesday, November 7th 2012

Summary: "GIS and geospatial knowledge are critical for the interconnected 21st century world," says Rich Quodomine of the New York Department of Transportation, and a member of the Association of American Geographers. So who will compete for the jobs and who will best serve employers looking for the best workers? Quodomine attended the International Geographic Congress 2012 in Cologne, Germany and came away believing that GIS expertise is no longer confined to the U.S. Europe has recognized the value of GIS. Will European workers compete for jobs that were once the sole purview of U.S. geographers?

In the United States, we have many conferences, local, regional and national, for geography and applied geographic solutions such as GIS. Nationally, the Association of American Geographers (AAG) regularly hosts over 7,000 people and presents over 1,000 papers annually, and has many regional conferences to present research. The Esri International User Conference has even more attendees and focuses on delivering solutions to pressing problems and demonstrating the company’s new technological capacities. The International Geographic Congress (IGC) 2012 in Cologne, Germany was one of Europe’s largest geographically focused conferences, organized by the International Geographic Union (IGU). There were over 2,500 attendees and over 1,000 papers submitted, the largest ever, according to conference organizers.

While the exchange of geographic studies has gone on in Europe for years, many members of the IGC Young Researchers’ Forum (YRF), conference attendees who are academics and practitioners mostly under the age of 30, indicated that most geographers hadn’t been particularly active in a post-graduate association. Further, European geographic conferences were largely academic and had little long-term application. However, that is changing, according to the YRF and in this observer’s view. The younger geographers are very engaged in global understanding and want to participate in the broader world of applied geography.
 
Similar to the U.S., geographers in Europe were generally employed as professors at first, or in social studies programs in primary or high schools. The U.S. government had security analysis demands which required geographers, as well. Then the environmental and transportation branches of government developed more uses for geographers, generally in the field of GIS or landform analysis. In the last 20 years, the private sector has embraced geography as an interdisciplinary approach to the analysis of its capital investments or wise utilization of its sales force or logistical analysis of asset location.

In academic geography, there exists the classic or neo-liberal approach, largely considered to be capitalist or “western” in nature, focusing on the classic approach toward geographic thought. There is also the critical approach, largely oriented with Marxism or Deconstructionism (such as Derrida) and focusing on pointing out what is incorrect with the neo-liberal approach. I know what the readers of Directions Magazine are thinking: So what? Who cares? Well, GIS is ultimately a tool based on geography, and the school of thought from which you are taught (most of my professors came from the neo-liberal approach) may color your thinking about all things geography, including GIS. Practitioners of GIS rarely have time for such lofty debates because they are busy solving real-world problems.

However, learning a geographic approach from a given viewpoint may inspire the practicing geographer to solve a problem, or frame a problem, differently. For example, during one session I attended, a geographer presented a study she had done to assist in global micro-energy and micro-development for food production. She would use the local needs as a basis, and then plot out where micro-energy (such as micro-wind) was needed and the best way to deliver this. She managed over 20 different micro-projects, worldwide, and she came from a critical approach, that is to say, she felt that the system had failed these areas. In another session, a study focused on local biomass/biofuel development as a local growth stimulus program, a classic neo-liberal focus based on strong inward, market-driven development in reaction to the public’s demand for more “green” fuel resources from renewable biomass.

This conference ultimately appeals to a more academic crowd than an applied geographic science crowd, but the direction of academics, as geographic information science becomes more globally important, is to embrace academics as the grounds for learning geographic intelligence, and academics to embrace GIS as the future of applied geography across all realms.  

At these conferences, there are many opportunities to discuss the 1,000+ topics that were available. The point of this article isn’t to provide a survey of the conference, but rather to show that the approaches to academic geography are beginning to recognize the importance of what practitioners are doing. After a session co-hosted by the AAG and European Geography Association (EuroGEO) on the importance of developing practicing skills as well as academic ones, at least two colleagues approached me about the importance of academics focusing on giving their students tools and skills to deal with the real world. One colleague from South Africa, who is on the IGU’s education committee, said that the focus of teaching students, especially in terminal bachelor’s or master’s programs, must be on delivering geographic knowledge to the public and to employers for use, and not just geographic knowledge for its own sake. Still another colleague is developing an effort similar to the AAG’s EDGE project which better prepares graduate schools and graduates for work in the non-academic world. This effort is spearheaded by EUROGEO’s Karl Donert.

The rest of the world is echoing the same point publications like Directions Magazine have sounded for some time: GIS and geospatial knowledge are critical for the interconnected 21st century world. However, I submit that the world is catching up with the United States in that realization. The geospatial industry is likely, in my opinion, to enter a period of competition. While firms may continue to grow in the U.S. and elsewhere, the competition for geospatial jobs will expand, with many people from different nations competing for jobs that might once have been considered the sole province of Americans. This may mean that Americans will compete for jobs in other nations, and now, other nations will send their best graduates to compete with us on our soil.

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